the princess and the moral outrage

03 Dec

You guys, I think we need to talk about The Princess And The Frog.

From the beginning, this film has been steeped in controversy.  It is the first full production to come out of Disney studios after John Lasseter (Mr. Pixar) jumped on their train and put on his conductor hat.  It’s their triumphant return to traditional 2-D animation.  It’s the first Disney film with a black heroine.  It’s set in the oh-too-recently devastated landscape of New Orleans (albeit during its swinging jazz age), and it features a toothless hillbilly firefly who sounds like a Family Guy parody of Randy Newman.  The only non-controversial thing about this picture is that it’s being directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team responsible for hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

And…oh, wait.  Everybody hated Treasure Planet.

Don't look so upset, Joseph Gordon Levitt! I liked Treasure Planet. Guess why. BECAUSE IT WAS IN SPACE, THAT'S WHY.

Okay, I guess that’s controversial too.

With the film’s upcoming release date (December 11th) it’s no surprise that early screenings have the reviewers shouting their opinions at anybody who’ll listen, and hey, guess what?  The reviews, at this point, seem to be positive.

Which would be cool if anybody was reviewing the effing movie.

With a film this controversial, it’s predictable that the biggest talking points are its novelties.  The quality of the animation, the catchiness of the traditional Disney broadway-style tunes, the enjoyability of its dialogue…all of it is lost in the furor over whether the prince is too white or whether the villain is too black.  People are either hailing Disney’s newfound sensitivity or denouncing its lack of it.  I’m not saying Ultra Corporation Disney is the leader in equal-rights entertainment, but their announcement of a black Princess has sent the world off its rocker.

Seriously, it was starting to get to the point where I was feeling bad for Disney.  With every press release or tidbit of  information about the film, society backlashed.  It was like trying to watch a kid present a macaroni picture to a tribe of violent apes.

Disney:  Hey, everybody!  We’re making a new movie!  In 2-D!  Like the Lion King!  You guys liked the Lion King, right?

Everybody:  YAAAAAAAAAY!

Disney:  And guess what?  We’re going to have the first ever African-American Disney Princess!


Disney:  That’s right!  Her name is going to  be Maddie!

Everybody: …

Everybody:  What?

Disney:  Maddie.

Everybody:  Mammy?  You’re naming her Mammy?

Disney:  What?  No!  MADDIE.  MAD.  DIE.  It’s a traditional name from the era.

Everybody:  That’s racist.  I can’t believe you have a BLACK CHARACTER, and you’re naming her MAMMY.


Everybody:  Cotton?  Cotton, you say?

Disney:  Oh, Christ.

Everybody:  We demand you change Mammy”s-

Disney:  Maddie’s.

Everybody:  Maddie’s name.  Look, even if it isn’t EXACTLY Mammy, it sounds a lot LIKE Mammy.  That’s enough.  You’ll have little black girls growing up thinking they have to be nurses to white children and bring dinnuh to massuh and all that.  You want to instill this in them, with your racist naming.

Disney:  Okay, OKAY.  Fine.  We won’t name her Maddie, a name that was widely used among girls in the 1920’s.  We’ll name her…fuck, let’s just make up a name, huh?  Let’s call her TIANA.  It sounds like TIARA which is PRINCESSY and you people won’t argue with a MADE UP PRINCESSY NAME.

Everybody:  Sounds good to us.

Disney:  Can we move on?

Everybody:  Okay.

Disney:  Fine.  Jesus.  Okay.  So Ma…Tiana will live in New Orleans.  It’ll be a really rich, jazzy setting full of Creole culture, and-

Everybody:  Ahem.

Disney:  Oh.  What?

Everybody:  Not everybody in New Orleans was Creole you know.

Disney:  We know.  Not everybody in the movie is Creole.

Everybody:  Yes, but you have some very…Creoley characters.

Disney:  How do you know?

Everybody:  What about that firefly?  In the picture?  It looks drunk and stupid.

Disney:  That’s because the character is stupid.  This is unrelated to where it lives and its underlying culture.  We also have Creole characters that are not stupid.

Everybody:  But that one is stupid.

Disney:  Let’s just…okay.  We’re just going to move on.  So they’re in New Orleans, where Maddie-

Everybody:  Tiana.

Disney:  TIANA. Tiana.  Where Tiana is the chamber maid to a spoiled debutante –



Everybody:  You’re having a black girl be a maid?

Disney:  …yes.  Just like Cinderella.  And Snow White.  And seriously, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan, and Belle were all shown doing chores and cleaning and that stuff.  The only ones who haven’t really lifted a finger are Ariel and Nala, and they’ve got excuses on account of their not being human.

Everybody:  You can’t have a black girl be a maid.  Especially a white girl’s maid.

At this point Disney politely excuses itself, goes and takes a shot of Scotch, and returns with their best PR smile and a bit of a nervous twitch.

Disney:  Okay.  She won’t be a maid.  Sorry we were insensitive.  TIANA will be an ASPIRING RESTAURANTEUR.  Okay?  How’s that?

Everybody:  Oh, that sounds nice.

Disney:  Yes, and we’re going to call it…The Frog Princess!


Everybody:  You can’t insult the French like that.

At this point Disney changed the title to ‘The Princess And The Frog’ and declined further press conferences on the grounds that they were out of hard liquor.

You guys, The Princess And The Frog could certainly be considered a pivotal point for Disney.  It marks some significant changes, and it’ll be interesting to observe the reactions of the children (being that they are the target audience) and witness the social fallout over the next many years.

But for now, these folks worked really hard on a movie that they thought people would like, and I feel like we have the obligation to watch the movie and make a decision about that before we start analyzing its political implications.

If you go see The Princess And The Frog on December 11th, I would urge you to marvel at the animation, to salute the voice acting and dance to the songs.  If at the end of the film you have a little grain of moral outrage in you, go ahead and get that out of your system.  By all means, write a critical analysis.  Write a cultural thesis and post it everywhere you can, and I will eagerly discuss it with you.  There are points of the film that I’m not that pleased about myself, but if we let ourselves become so distracted by all these connotative implications, we fail to recognize good art as what it is.  We won’t be able to see the forest for the potentially racist trees, as it were.

Sometimes a Princess is just a Princess, to quote a recent article, and we should let her be a character before she is a color.


Posted by on December 3, 2009 in Uncategorized


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9 responses to “the princess and the moral outrage

  1. plaintain1

    December 3, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I believe in the film Do the Right Thing or Jungle Fever (both by Spike Lee), a character says how he hates Walt Disney films and yes, that comment made me think. I bought my daughter the DVD the Little Mermaid which was great in terms of animation and the music. But after watching it repeatedly, there was something troubling about a mermaid who is descended from Royalty longs to be a part of a world of physically-abled bodied people instead of the one made up of ‘physically challenged’ people such as herself. And also wants to be with people who hold contempt for anything under the sea. Her complex is so great that she almost sells her soul to the sea-devil. And of course like all Disney films, the film ends with the mermaid getting a pair of legs and her ‘prince’ and everybody lives happily ever after. Maybe I’m looking too much into this but I felt the message for people who suffer a disability can’t feel too great after watching a film that derides their affliction. The film was also subtly negating cultures that are different i.e., if you don’t belong to the mainstream culture then you are an outsider. It is so easy with this film to be carried away with the animation and of course, the music is incredible. But Disney should check their messages in the content.

    • Jessica

      December 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm

      Wow, I have never talked to you before but you are officially My Favorite Person! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      I believe that films like The Princess And The Frog and The Little Mermaid have levels of symbolism, some of which can be condemned and some of which can be applauded. As these films are created for children, I think that the initial level, those that can be understood in its simplest form, are the most important to be considered on release.

      The Little Mermaid at its simplest level, is about a girl who sacrifices something important to her in order to live her life in a new way. It is about a girl who feels that she is inherently different, and rather than just deciding she will just go with the flow (if you will pardon the ocean pun) she takes steps to improve her life in the direction she wants it to go. These are simple concepts that a child will understand on viewing the movie.

      When we look deeper into the film, it graduates into more of an adult interpretation, which is all well and good, but it shouldn’t be applied to a child’s understanding. While I hadn’t considered The Little Mermaid as commentary on disability (I’ll have ot rewatch it now! You bring up a lot of great points!) I’m not sure that a child, if unprompted, would make the same connection. Maybe I’m not giving kids enough credit, but generally I think they will take Ariel’s absence of legs and her desire to have them as a very literal interpretation of ‘being different’ and coming from different worlds. The kids can SEE her differences, which is easier for them to understand.

      I guess what I am trying to say is that in children’s films there are often a series of disturbing stereotypes and tropes that we can be disgusted by, but what we take away from a film is quite different than what a child will take away. Most of these films (not all, admittedly) have very basic characters with admirable motivations, and we shouldn’t enforce cultural qualms on children who wouldn’t notice the reasons for our outrage otherwise.

      Short example: The uproar over naming the black character Maddie, which many adults argued was too close to Mammy and would be a poor influence on children. It’s my greatest hope that children do not understand the unfortunate history and stigma around the word ‘mammy’, and would never make that kind of connection. But WE know that history, and we unwittingly alert children to it by freaking out about it.

      Am I making sense? I’m not always fantastic at responding to comments in a way that doesn’t sound like Swedish or something. 🙂

      • Jessica

        December 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm

        Longest. Comment. Ever.

      • betty

        February 16, 2010 at 9:05 pm

        SO, I, being 16, feel that I can still reasonably speak for some children about in the world. Personally, all I saw when i watched the little mermaid was how Ariel loved the prince so she wanted to be with him, not neccesarily her dream of having two legs. I mean both the mermaids and humans express prejuducies against eachother. Since it is just Ariel, and not the entire population of disabled mermaids that wants to go on land, I dont think it is racist.. Plus she is a teenager that doesnt feel like she fits in where she is so dreams of going elsewhere where she might have better luck. Hormonal imbalance?

        Now with the “mammy” thing.. Speaking for myself of course, I had no idea “Mammy” was a racist name. At all. My first thought was Mammy=mommy?? they just sound similar.. I suppose I should look up on my black history but I can completely assure you that a good 80% of kids will have no idea what mammy means or its connotations. And seriously Maddie-Mammy!? Thats just a little wacked.. Tiana sounds more “black” than Maddie to me..

        Now more on Disney movies and prejudice: Sleeping Beauty.. Basicly: she meets a strange man in the forest, who immidiately get very physically close to her, and not only trusts him but declares her undying love to him (proven in the end). She also seems a little lacking in the deductive reasoning department not asking questions like, “where is the rest of the human race?” “why didnt anyone just go kill the witch instead of banishing me?” (ONE idiot can kill her i think an army can too.)
        And really, maybe she SHOULDNT have trusted the creep in the forest, he could have been a robber or something! Or maybe she shouldnt have gone up the creepy flight of hidden strairs with ominous fog and voices.

        Although.. I do have to applaud Disney because it does give a decent message with the prince fighting the evil dragon with a sword of truth and a shield of something-or-another. I think the symbolism might have been lost on the young minds but its a nice message anyway.

        Anyway thats the gist of what I have to say!

  2. sarah

    December 3, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    this totally reminds me of an article i read recently about problems with raising children and race. particularly, children with liberal-ish white parents. someone did an experiment on how talking to kids a lot about race, with specific examples and ideas, might decrease racism and stereotyping. one group didn’t do anything, one group watched a film, and the final group watched a film and had several discussions in which the parents addressed a number of topics on race. the experiment failed, specifically because the last group of parents wouldn’t talk to their kids. see, they were afraid of making their kids racist, by talking about race at all. a funny anecdote from the article – a family thinks they’re being great, raising their kid to be sensitive and not-racist, to understand that “no matter what, everyone is equal.” They hammer this message home for months. One day, the kid asks, “mommy, what does ‘equal’ mean?”

    So the kids need to get taught about race. Not like “everyone’s equal”, but like “some people have skin one color, and some people have skin another color. This usually has to do with things called “heritage” and “ancestors.” For a long time, white people thought that having white skin was better, and they did mean things to black people. But now we all know that nobody’s skin color makes them any better or worse than anyone else, even if it can make people look different.” If it doesn’t get really detailed, you get kids who aren’t “racist” per se, but they don’t really understand diversity and historical conditions of racism, and stuff like that.

    So yeah. The moralists are being crazy and silly. And probably causing the problem they want to solve to get much worse. I think this is true with most of these charged issues of political correctness – gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness, etc – but it seems worst with race.

  3. Vanessa

    December 3, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I just want to say that I both see the outrage as justified and as stupid. I think the thing we all have to face about the Disney classics we love and grew up with are generally shamefully full of racist sentiments and uncomfortable political statements. Because that’s who– surprise!– Walt Disney was: a bigoted, hateful man. It’s no surprise his political ideas made it into a large portion of the films. I mean, c’mon, Song of the South? I’m sure most kids humming zip-a-dee-doo-da don’t realize that song was sung by a Black slave and is about how gosh-darn happy he is to be oppressed. Or the pickaninnies that were REMOVED DUE TO CONTROVERSY from Fantasia’s Pastoral Symphony bit (the only other black centaurs? Half zebra, fanning the king).

    And The Lion King? Note how all the GOOD lions are lighter colored and Scar lives in a dark place removed from the rest of the kingdom and is the considerably darker lion. I’d go so far as to say he looks Middle Eastern, what with his beard (compare to Jafar). Even if you want to discount that, the hyenas were all voiced by Black or Hispanic voice actors and were made to sound stereotypically Black and Hispanic. And if they weren’t speaking like caricatures, they were too dumb to talk at all. Now I’m just saying that what I’m about to say really happened: little girl is walking down the street and sees a Black child, who is talking to a friends. She looks up at her mom and says “mommy! It’s the hyena from the Lion King!”

    I mean, yes, he was a product of his times, but please. Disney movies are great as entertainment, but if you’re letting your kids watch, for God’s sake have an in-depth conversation about it afterward. Kids aren’t dumb. They are sponges absorbing moral values from almost anything that chooses to place those values in front of them. Kids don’t understand what racism is and why it’s wrong until you explain it, and if you’re not going to confront controversial imagery in movies with them– even like the choice of a stereotypical location for a Black princess and her toothless implied-Black sidekick or Ariel’s story that plantain1 addressed– you’re doing our society a disservice.

    I’m not saying I completely disagree with you. Yes, people are probably making too big of a deal about it, but historically, Disney movies are pretty darn racist, so it makes sense that people are on guard.

  4. James

    December 4, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I feel silly not leaving a long, thought-out comment on race and Disney films, but…I just wanted to say I loved Treasure Planet too. I want his solar-surfing board so badly.

  5. plaintain1

    December 5, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Thanks Jessica for your response. You articulated my observations in the way I would have liked. If you check my blog you will see that race/racism is something that concerns me but as explained watching The Little Mermaid for the first time, made me aware of the prejudices that the physically challenged face. I think added to what I found troubling about the film was Ariel’s apparent disgust with herself (which was not acceptible). Walt Disney can be excused because as someone said he was a product of his time. But filmmakers of today who we know are enlightened would need to take much greater responsibility about how films are made and presented, since they are aware of the impact they have on the young audience.

    I’m sure the film was not consciously made as a comment on disability or race/cultures but when we keep seeing repeated camera shots of Ariel gazing ‘up’ with those big eyes to this other world, and we, the audience, are forced to look ‘down’ on her and her world then we should be concerned. When we learn that Ariel hoards treasures which are mainly human objects, it is so blatant that she longs to be human, again we should be concerned because as someone said elsewhere on your blog that ‘kids are not stupid’. They may not be able to articulate some of the adult messages and themes but later on they will.

    I remember as a young child being fascinated with the Disney film Dumbo the Elephant and always wondered why the black workers in the background never actually had faces, i.e., you’d see their bodies and heads but their faces were not drawn in! I’m still trying to figure that one out!

  6. plaintain1

    January 12, 2010 at 2:01 am

    Hi there!

    Hope you are well. I’ve just seen the new James Cameron movie Avatar. Have you seen it? I won’t make any comment on the racism as there are hundreds of blogs out there that have made enough. But once again the main protagonist is a paraplegic who longs to be able to walk. I will not say anymore in case you have not watched it but I would like to know your comments.
    Take care!!


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